Researcher: Belarus, Russia and China no longer care about reputation

I call it gray zone aggression as people perceive a battleground as something that is visible, security policy expert Elisabeth Braw said. PHOTO: Valdis Kaulins/Riia Konverents/Läti Transatlantiline Organisatsioon

The West does not know how to respond to gray zone aggression in a way to prevent new offensives, security policy expert Elisabeth Braw said during a Latvian Transatlantic Organization conference in Riga.

The abstract of the discussion you moderated said that democratic Western countries are currently existing in a gray zone between war and peace. What is the nature of this gray zone battleground?

I call it gray zone aggression as people perceive a battleground as something that is visible. The gray zone means that it cannot be seen most of the time. It is misinformation, subversive business practices, cyberaggression, diplomatic coercion. Tools where you cannot really tell whether you are being attacked can be summed up as gray zone aggression.

These attacks take advantage of the vulnerabilities of our societies to render them weaker and lend the other side strength. The gray zone is attractive because we have no good defense mechanisms there, having developed solid conventional defense instead.

I would do the same were I on the other side because it is difficult for the target to say whether they are being attacked or whether the attack is serious enough to warrant a counterstrike. The aggressor can simply maintain their efforts. Countries taking advantage of the gray zone need to be creative in coming up with attacks that do not escalate into war and leave the target pondering how to respond.

The most recent example of this is the migrant offensive orchestrated by Belarus. What should Latvia, Lithuania and Poland do? They describe it as gray zone aggression and say they are forced to spend considerable sums on guarding their borders. But that is just a reaction and does nothing to dissuade Belarus from taking other measures.

What about it is new? Throughout history, countries have thought of ways to promote their interests without resorting to conventional war as the latter can be very expensive.

Expensive both in terms of lives and money. The difference is that nation states have tried to be responsible since the Peace of Westphalia. Wars were waged but they also ended. Now, we have a number of countries that do not care whether they are perceived as pariahs.

Because we are so closely connected today, they have many more opportunities to come after us. Propaganda was used during the Cold War and before, while we can also say that the West tried to undermine Warsaw Pact countries by supporting dissidents. However, it was not a sustained and multifaceted strategy for undermining other societies because not enough opportunities existed.

For example, Belarus has stopped caring about how it is perceived. The same seems to apply to Russia, China – their hostage policy is also gray zone aggression. China imprisoned citizens of another country to force the latter to do its bidding (China arrested Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor for over three years after the detention of Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou – M. A.).

Is international law flexible enough to oppose gray zone aggression?

It is not. International law does an excellent job of covering conventional war, while it has no agreements or regulations for what comes before. Every state has its own criminal law that can be used in some cases, but that is killing one fly with one blow. There is no legal system for gray zone aggression and I very much doubt there will be because the possibilities it offers are mainly used by one side – Russia, China and increasingly also by Belarus, Iran, North Korea – with the other side the target. Why should the former agree to rules?

Would you say our side, the democratic side, does not use such methods?

I would not go that far. Looking at support from the West for democratic groups in Russia, Belarus, Iran, they claim it is gray zone aggression and meddling in their affairs. We say that we are not meddling and are instead supporting pro-freedom movements in your countries.

We should not be as arrogant as to always paint ourselves as the good guys and perpetual victims. While we might think so, that is not how they see it.

There are clear differences in some areas. We do not use hostage diplomacy or weaponize migrants. However, it could be claimed that U.S. sanctions aimed against specific countries or companies constitute gray zone aggression as they are imposing their will on other states. It is also the reason why unilateral U.S. sanctions are not sensible because China can then do the same to American companies without there being anything left for the latter to say.

I’m not trying to justify the behavior of Russia, Belarus, China and Iran, we should simply look at our actions from their perspective and understand they have a different view of our best intentions. Especially in Russia.

What is the effect of technological development on gray zone aggression and the psychological resilience of democracy?

I have tried to draw attention to the convenience trap. Everyday activities have become increasingly convenient during my lifetime, while it also comes with greater vulnerability. For example, deepening digitation is giving attackers more and more possibilities.

We need to be honest as a society and admit that attacks on computer systems are phenomenally effective and cause a lot of damage. The other side knows this. We should not panic when it happens. We can choose to either dial back digital dependance or admit that it’s the price we need to pay for convenience.

Governments should involve people to a greater degree. Why do we not have psychological resilience trainings? For example, by removing internet access for certain periods to give people time to get used to the idea that it could happen. The same with electricity. It will happen eventually and cause people to panic. We recently saw it happen following fuel supply difficulties in the UK and the ransomware attack against U.S. energy company Colonial Pipeline.

What would you say to those who claim such trainings would fuel even worse fears, similarly to the nuclear drills of the 1950s?

Nuclear strikes are highly unlikely, while attacks against digital infrastructure have already happened. I used to live in the earthquake zone in San Francisco where awareness campaigns were a regular occurrence – what to do during and after an earthquake. It is frightening to consider but gives one certainty of knowing what to do in a crisis.

I believe it would be the same story for other disruptions of everyday life. Households in Sweden were recently sent a booklet on what to do in case of war or serious crisis. Latvia did the same last year. And that is precisely what needs to be done.

How to boost trust in governments? People in many if not all Western democratic countries have reduced faith in their governments and political parties. This has become especially acute during the coronavirus pandemic, while the trend was clear before.

This goes to the very foundations of societies and is a very difficult question. There is a gap between the political and media elite and the broader population. How could traditional politicians bridge that gap without becoming populist? Becoming more populist and combative toward competitors jeopardizes democracy. We can see it in the U.S. where dialogue and the art of compromise are disappearing.

One way to improve the situation, while it cannot solve it outright, is to offer better social education. For example, libraries could offer informed reading courses to develop a general idea of what and how to trust. Those who complete the course would be issued certificates they could add to their CVs.

A part of the population has an undeserved preconception of mainstream media because they don’t know how it works. If something fails to make the paper, they believe it was malicious bias because they don’t know how many choices editors have to make.

I believe media organizations should invite people to visit. Not quite an open doors policy but rather constant communication with communities. The Estonian public broadcaster could tour the country, do local coverage and meet with people.

The Americans increasingly see the rivalry between the U.S. and China as a clash of the titans over whether democracy or authoritarianism will prevail over the coming decades. European governments are more open to working with China. Is it a zero-sum game as per the Americans’ idea?

We should learn from Western German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who pursued a so-called two-lane policy that consisted of having nuclear missiles deterrence in Europe, while negotiating missile nonproliferation with the Soviet Union.

Schmidt and many other Germans believed the West needs to steadfastly oppose the Soviet Union, while it must also communicate with it. He supported economic ties between West Germany and the Soviet Union. We might believe that political principles and business cooperation are incompatible, while Schmidt demonstrated they are not.

We should adopt the same mentality as relying solely on communication leaves the West vulnerable, while ending the dialogue would increase the possibility of a trifling error leading to a major conflict.

What is more, climate change and nuclear weapons are two issues that can only be addressed in international cooperation.

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